Captain James Cook FRS RN (7 November, 1728 – 14 February 1779) was an English explorer, navigator and cartographer, ultimately rising to the rank of Captain in the Royal Navy. Cook was the first to map Newfoundland prior to making three voyages to the Pacific Ocean during which he achieved the first European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands as well as the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand.
Cook joined the British merchant navy as a teenager and joined the Royal Navy in 1755. He saw action in the Seven Years' War, and subsequently surveyed and mapped much of the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River during the siege of Quebec. This allowed General Wolfe to make his famous stealth attack on the Plains of Abraham, and helped to bring Cook to the attention of the Admiralty and Royal Society. This notice came at a crucial moment both in his personal career and in the direction of British overseas exploration, and led to his commission in 1766 as commander of HM Bark Endeavour for the first of three Pacific voyages.
Cook charted many areas and recorded several islands and coastlines on European maps for the first time. His achievements can be attributed to a combination of seamanship, superior surveying and cartographic skills, courage in exploring dangerous locations to confirm the facts (for example dipping into the Antarctic circle repeatedly and exploring around the Great Barrier Reef), an ability to lead men in adverse conditions, and boldness both with regard to the extent of his explorations and his willingness to exceed the instructions given to him by the Admiralty.
In 1745, when he was 16, Cook moved 20 miles to the fishing village of Staithes to be apprenticed in a grocery/haberdashery business, where he first felt the lure of the sea while gazing out of the shop window.
After 18 months, not proving suitable for shop work, his boss William Sanderson took Cook to the nearby port town of Whitby and introduced him to John and Henry Walker. The Walkers were prominent local ship-owners and Quakers, and were in the coal trade. Their house is now the Captain Cook Memorial Museum. Cook was taken on as a merchant navy apprentice in their small fleet of vessels plying coal along the English coast. His first assignment was aboard the collier Freelove, and he spent several years on this and various other coasters sailing between the Tyne and London.
His three-year apprenticeship completed, Cook began working on trading ships in the Baltic Sea. He soon progressed through the merchant navy ranks, starting with his 1752 promotion to Mate (officer in charge of navigation) aboard the collier brig Friendship. In 1755, within a month of being offered command of this vessel, he volunteered for service in the Royal Navy, as Britain was re-arming for what was to become the Seven Years' War.
Despite the need to start back at the bottom of the naval hierarchy, Cook realised his career would advance more quickly in military service. On June 17 he began as able seaman aboard HMS Eagle under the command of Captain Hugh Palliser. He was very quickly promoted to Master's Mate. By 1757, within two years of joining the Royal Navy, he passed his master's examination qualifying him to navigate and handle a ship of the King's fleet.
During the Seven Years' War, as master of Pembroke (his second command, after Solebay), Cook participated in the siege of Quebec City before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. He showed a talent for surveying and cartography and was responsible for mapping much of the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River during the siege, allowing General Wolfe to make his famous stealth attack on the Plains of Abraham.
Cook's surveying skills were put to good use in the 1760s, mapping the jagged coast of Newfoundland. Cook surveyed the northwest stretch in 1763 and 1764, the south coast between the Burin Peninsula and Cape Ray in 1765 and 1766, and the west coast in 1767. Cook’s five seasons in Newfoundland produced the first large-scale and accurate maps of the island’s coasts; they also gave Cook his mastery of practical surveying, achieved under often adverse conditions, and brought him to the attention of the Admiralty and Royal Society at a crucial moment both in his personal career and in the direction of British overseas discovery.
Following on from his exertions in Newfoundland, it was at this time that Cook wrote, he intended to go not only:
"... farther than any man has been before me, but as far as I think it is possible for a man to go."
In 1766, the Royal Society hired Cook to travel to the Pacific Ocean to observe and record the transit of Venus across the Sun. He sailed from England in 1768, rounded Cape Horn and continued westward across the Pacific to arrive at Tahiti on April 13 1769, where the observations were to be made. However, the result of the observations were not as conclusive or accurate as had been hoped. Cook later mapped the complete New Zealand coastline, making only some minor errors. He then sailed west, reaching the south-eastern coast of the Australian continent on 19 April 1770, and in doing so his expedition became the first recorded Europeans to have encountered its eastern coastline. On 23 April he made his first recorded direct observation of indigenous Australians at Brush Island near Bawley Point, noting in his journal "...and were so near the Shore as to distinguish several people upon the Sea beach they appear'd to be of a very dark or black Colour but whether this was the real colour of their skins or the C[l]othes they might have on I know not." On April 29 Cook and crew made their first landfall on the mainland of the continent at a place now known as Kurnell, which he named Botany Bay after the unique specimens retrieved by the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. It is here that James Cook made first contact with an Aboriginal tribe known as the Gweagal. After his departure from Botany Bay he continued northwards, and a mishap occurred when Endeavour ran aground on a shoal of the Great Barrier Reef, on June 11. The ship was badly damaged and his voyage was delayed almost seven weeks while repairs were carried out on the beach (near the docks of modern Cooktown, at the mouth of the Endeavour River). Once repairs were complete the voyage continued, sailing through Torres Strait and on 22 August he landed on Possession Island, where he claimed the entire coastline he had just explored as British territory. He returned to England via the Cape of Good Hope and Saint Helena, arriving on 12 July, 1771.
Shortly after his return, Cook was promoted from Master to Commander. Then once again he was commissioned by the Royal Society to search for the mythical Terra Australis. On his first voyage, Cook had demonstrated by circumnavigating New Zealand that it was not attached to a larger landmass to the south; and although by charting almost the entire eastern coastline of Australia he had shown it to be continental in size, the Terra Australis being sought was supposed to lie further to the south. Despite this evidence to the contrary Dalrymple and others of the Royal Society still believed that this massive southern continent should exist.
Cook commanded HMS Resolution on this voyage, while Tobias Furneaux commanded its companion ship, HMS Adventure. Cook's expedition circumnavigated the globe at a very high southern latitude, becoming one of the first to cross the Antarctic Circle on January 17, 1773. He also surveyed, mapped and took possession for Britain of South Georgia explored by Anthony de la Roché in 1675, discovered and named Clerke Rocks and the South Sandwich Islands ('Sandwich Land'). In the Antarctic fog, Resolution and Adventure became separated. Furneaux made his way to New Zealand, where he lost some of his men following a fight with Māori, and eventually sailed back to Britain, while Cook continued to explore the Antarctic, reaching 71°10'S on 31 January 1774.
Cook almost encountered the mainland of Antarctica, but turned back north towards Tahiti to resupply his ship. He then resumed his southward course in a second fruitless attempt to find the supposed continent. On this leg of the voyage he brought with him a young Tahitian named Omai, who proved to be somewhat less knowledgeable about the Pacific than Tupaia had been on the first voyage. On his return voyage, in 1774 he landed at the Friendly Islands, Easter Island, Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu. His reports upon his return home put to rest the popular myth of Terra Australis.
Another accomplishment of the second voyage was the successful employment of the Larcum Kendall K1 chronometer, which enabled Cook to calculate his longitudinal position with much greater accuracy. Cook's log was full of praise for the watch and the charts of the southern Pacific Ocean he made with its use were remarkably accurate - so much so that copies of them were still in use in the mid 20th century.
Upon his return, Cook was promoted to the rank of Captain and given an honorary retirement from the Royal Navy, as an officer in the Greenwich Hospital. His fame now extended beyond the Admiralty and he was also made a Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the Copley Gold Medal, painted by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, dined with James Boswell and described in the House of Lords as "the first navigator in Europe". But he could not be kept away from the sea. A third voyage was planned to find the Northwest Passage. Cook travelled to the Pacific and hoped to travel east to the Atlantic, while a simultaneous voyage travelled the opposite way.
On his last voyage, Cook once again commanded HMS Resolution, while Captain Charles Clerke commanded HMS Discovery. Ostensibly the voyage was planned to return Omai to Tahiti; this is what the general public believed, as he had become a favourite curiosity in London. Principally the purpose of the voyage was an attempt to discover the famed Northwest Passage. After returning Omai, Cook travelled north and in returning from forrays on the Alaskan coast (see below) in 1778 became the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands. In passing and after initial landfall in January 1778 at Waimea harbour, Kauai, Cook named the archipelago the "Sandwich Islands" after the fourth Earl of Sandwich, the acting First Lord of the Admiralty.
From the South Pacific he travelled northeast to explore the west coast of North America, landing near the First Nations village at Yuquot in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, although he unknowingly sailed past the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He explored and mapped the coast from California all the way to the Bering Strait, on the way identifying what came to be known as Cook Inlet in Alaska. It has been said that, in a single visit, Cook charted the majority of the North American northwest coastline on world maps for the first time, determined the extent of Alaska and closed the gaps in Russian (from the West) and Spanish (from the South) exploratory probes of the Northern limits of the Pacific.
The Bering Strait proved to be impassable, although he made several attempts to sail through it. He became increasingly frustrated on this voyage, and perhaps began to suffer from a stomach ailment; it has been speculated that this led to irrational behaviour towards his crew, such as forcing them to eat walrus meat, which they found inedible.
Cook returned to Hawaii in 1779. After sailing around the archipelago for some eight weeks, he made landfall at Kealakekua Bay, on what is now the 'Big Island' of Hawaii. Cook's arrival may have coincided with the Makahiki, a Hawaiian harvest festival of worship for the Polynesian god Lono. Indeed the form of Cook's ship, HMS Resolution, or more particularly the mast formation, sails and rigging, resembled certain significant artifacts that formed part of the season of worship. Similarly, Cook's clockwise route around the islands before making landfall resembled the processions that took place in a clockwise direction around the island during the Lono festivals. It has been argued (most extensively by Marshall Sahlins) that such coincidences were the reasons for Cook's (and to a limited extent, his crew's) initial deification by some Hawaiians who treated Cook as an incarnation of Lono. Though this view was first suggested by members of Cook's expedition, the idea that any Hawaiians understood Cook to be Lono, and the evidence presented in support of it was challenged in 1992).
After a month's stay, Cook got under sail again to resume his exploration of the Northern Pacific. However, shortly after leaving the Big Island, the foremast of the Resolution broke and the ships returned to Kealakekua Bay for repairs. It has been hypothesized that the return to the islands by Cook's expedition was not just unexpected by the Hawaiians but unwelcome because the season of Lono had recently ended (though this presumes that Cook was connected in some way with Lono and Makahiki). In any case, tensions rose and a number of quarrels broke out between the Europeans and Hawaiians. On February 14 at Kealakekua Bay, some Hawaiians took one of Cook's small boats. Normally, as thefts were quite common in Tahiti and the other islands, Cook would have taken hostages until the stolen articles were returned. Indeed, he attempted to take hostage the King of Hawaii, Kalaniopu'u. The Hawaiians prevented this, and Cook's men had to retreat to the beach. As Cook turned his back to help launch the boats, he was struck on the head by the villagers and then stabbed to death as he fell on his face in the surf. The Hawaiians dragged his body away. Four of the Marines with Cook were also killed and two wounded in the confrontation.
Some scholars suggest that Cook's return to Hawaii outside the season of worship for Lono, which was synonymous with 'peace', and thus in the season of 'war' (being dedicated to Kū, god of war) may have upset the equilibrium and fostered an atmosphere of resentment and aggression from the local population. Coupled with a jaded grasp of native diplomacy and a burgeoning but limited understanding of local politics, Cook may have inadvertently contributed to the tensions that ultimately brought about his demise.
The esteem in which he was nevertheless held by the Hawaiians resulted in his body being retained by their chiefs and elders (possibly, as some claim, for partial human consumption, though this remains contentious) and the flesh cut and roasted from his bones. This was a similar burial ritual reserved for the chiefs and highest elders of the society. Some of Cook's remains, disclosing some corroborating evidence to this effect, were eventually returned to the British for a formal burial at sea following an appeal by the crew.
Clerke took over the expedition and made a final attempt to pass through the Bering Strait. Following the death of Clerke, Resolution and Discovery returned home in October 1780 commanded by John Gore, a veteran of Cook's first voyage, and Captain James King. Cook's account of his third and final voyage was completed upon their return by King.
To create accurate maps, latitude and longitude need to be known. Navigators had been able to work out latitude accurately for centuries by measuring the angle of the sun or a star above the horizon with an instrument such as a backstaff or quadrant. But longitude was more difficult to measure accurately because it requires precise knowledge of the time difference between points on the surface of the earth. Earth turns a full 360 degrees relative to the sun each day. Thus longitude corresponds to time: 15 degrees every hour, or 1 degree every 4 minutes.
Cook gathered accurate longitude measurements during his first voyage due to his navigational skills, the help of astronomer Charles Green and by using the newly published Nautical Almanac tables, via the lunar distance method — measuring the angular distance from the moon to either the sun during daytime or one of eight bright stars during night-time to determine the time at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and comparing that to his local time determined via the altitude of the sun, moon, or stars. On his second voyage Cook used the K1 chronometer made by Larcum Kendall, which was the shape of a large pocket watch, 13 cm (5 inches) in diameter. It was a copy of the H4 clock made by John Harrison, which proved to be the first to keep accurate time at sea when used on the ship Deptford's journey to Jamaica, 1761-1762.
Ever the observer, Cook was the first European to have extensive contact with various people of the Pacific. He correctly concluded there was a relationship among all the people in the Pacific, despite their being separated by thousands of miles of ocean (see Malayo-Polynesian languages). In New Zealand the coming of Cook is often used to signify the onset of colonisation.
James Cook also came up with the theory that Polynesians originated from Asia, which was later proved to be correct by scientist Bryan Sykes.
Cook was accompanied by many scientists, whose observations and discoveries added to the importance of the voyages. Joseph Banks, a botanist, went on the first voyage along with fellow botanist Daniel Solander from Sweden. Between them they collected over 3,000 plant species. Banks became one of the strongest promoters of the settlement of Australia by the British, based on his own personal observations.
There were several artists on the first voyage. Sydney Parkinson was involved in many of the drawings, completing 264 drawings before his death near the end of the voyage. They were of immense scientific value to British botanists. Cook's second expedition included the artist William Hodges, who produced notable landscape paintings of Tahiti, Easter Island, and other locations.
His contributions were recognized during his era. In 1779, when the American colonies were at war with Britain in their war for independence, Benjamin Franklin wrote to captains of American warships at sea, recommending that if they came into contact with Cook's vessel, to:
...not consider her an enemy, nor suffer any plunder to be made of the effects contained in her, nor obstruct her immediate return to England by detaining her or sending her into any other part of Europe or to America; but that you treat the said Captain Cook and his people with all civility and kindness, . . . as common friends to mankind.
The site where he was killed in Hawaii is marked by a white obelisk and about 25 square feet of land around it is chained off. This land, though in Hawaii, has been given to the United Kingdom. Therefore, the site is officially a part of the UK. With the jurisdictions reversed exactly the same sort of situation exists at Runnymede where the U.S. has extraterritorial jurisdiction over a monument to John F. Kennedy.
Cook appeared on a United States coin, the 1928 Hawaiian Sesquicentennial half dollar. Minted during the celebration marking the 150th anniversary of his discovery of the islands, its low mintage (10,008) has made this example of Early United States commemorative coins both scarce and expensive.
The first tertiary education institution in North Queensland, Australia was named after him, with James Cook University opening in Townsville in 1970. Numerous other institutions, landmarks and place names reflect the importance of Cook's contribution to knowledge of geography. These also include the Cook Islands, the Cook Strait, and Cook crater.
Tributes also abound in post-industrial Middlesbrough, and include a primary school, shopping square and the Bottle 'O Notes a public artwork by Claes Oldenburg erected in the town's Central Gardens in 1993. His nearby birthplace of Marton is the location of both the James Cook University Hospital, a teaching hospital, and the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum. The Royal Research Ship RRS James Cook was built in 2006 to replace the RRS Charles Darwin in the UK's Royal Research Fleet.